This is a good time to thank you all for your readership in the past, present and future. I hope every one of you has a fantastic 2017. For those of you who use other calendars, well, please save up this post and read it again when it applies.
Let’s talk about calendars. Cool facts: in the C.E. calendar, there is no Year Zero. We go from 1 B.C.E. to 1 C.E. Not sure why, but I think this is because zero as a counting concept had yet to be invented. I think Arab mathematicians came up with it centuries after the establishment of the C.E. calendar. Also, we get “calendar” from the Latin “calends,” which referred to the first day of the Roman month. EIDVS, the “ides,” were the 13th or the 15th; every month had an eidvs. Many days were nefastus, which meant “inauspicious for the conduct of public business.” Back when I was in college, I made a Roman monthly calendar for our staff office. I received some heckling and a few queries. My boss at the time also had a background in Roman history at least as good as mine. One of my colleagues asked him: “For example, what the hell does this mean?” Steve looked up, then answered: “That means it’s a good day to cut up a goat and examine its entrails.”
The Western world mostly uses what I call the Christian Era calendar, C.E. I get a lot of flak for calling it that. I am lectured that I should be calling it the Common Era. The lecturers find it baffling that of all people, a rather stridently non-Christian person with a degree in history should adopt what they consider a grossly westerncentric term, then dare to defend it even when the speech police show up with warrants (“conform, or we will call you naughty names, jump to conclusions about your politics, and not consider you a member in good standing”). Well:
“Common Era” says nothing of use. Not one thing. It sounds dopey. Common? how so? Was the era before it the “Uncommon Era?” Can eras be said to be common or uncommon? How often does one find this era laying around, relative to that one? Should we go looking for rare eras? The reality is that we’ve used the Gregorian calendar for centuries (in Russia’s case, just one century right about now), and it was always “Before Christ” then “anno Domini” (‘year of the Lord’). Then one day we woke up and decided that not everyone in the Western world was a Christian; reasonable enough on its face. So we renamed it; however, the reality stared us in the face. Whatever we renamed the dating system, it was still based on the nominal assumed timeframe of a key religious figure of legitimately disputed provenance. Starting a new calendar, which would get us a truly secular dating system, would be difficult and icky and hard to obtain the necessary related consensus. Thus, we tried doing it the half-assed way, renaming it without changing its basis. Everyone with a claim to secularism was advised to obey the new usage or be lectured and shamed, as the goal posts moved again.
I’ve never been good about taking orders from those I do not consider my just authorities. Not very many people fall into that category. I have been described as immune to peer pressure, and it’s something of an understatement, because I am proud of this and seek to become more so, not less, which fits well with aging.
But hey, if we are going to adopt a secularist calendar, then let us do so. I’m down. When will we begin it? Should be fun trying to get agreement on that. In the meantime, this particular calendar’s period happens to coincide with the rise of Christianity. Just because I do not share this religion does not mean its rise is not one of the great shaping events of the last two millennia in the Western world. In fact, it is the only shaping event coincidental with that particular timeframe. Those of us who live in the Western world are perfectly entitled to choose and use a Western-centric calendar. Other cultures use their own calendars and dating systems, and we seem to accept that without whining. But if we want to reject a religious calendar, let’s do so by devising a new one, as did the French. In the meantime, let’s stop lying to ourselves with a silly feelgood solution that radiates hypocrisy. Go lecture the Saudis on why their hijri calendar is theocratic, if you want, and see how they react to that. Unless, of course, you hold them to a lower standard. Do you? Or you could write to the King of Thailand about his country’s calendar. I doubt you’ll get any traction with His Majesty, though you can try. (Just be careful how you word it, because lese majesté is a felony in Thailand even if committed off Thai soil, and if you show up there one day and they perceive that you were disrespectful, you could be arrested.)
Happy New Year, January 1, 2017 C.E. (Christian Era).
Other people have done and do calendars differently.
During the French Revolution, they decided that the event was so monumental it deserved a new dating system. Imagine if we had begun a new calendar on July 2, 1776 C.E. (when the Continental Congress voted to secede, and which John Adams assumed would be celebrated each year; it was ratified on July 4). They wanted a secular non-royalist calendar, so they began the French Republican Calendar or French Revolutionary Calendar (the initials are the same in French as well; CRF). Implemented in 1793 and lasting into the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, this calendar had twelve new months. Ever hear of Lobster thermidor? The month of Thermidor was late July and the first 2/3 of August, which are hot. All eleven other months were named similarly for natural or social phenomena normal in France at the given times, such as the grape harvest or frost. French revolutionary coins read, for example, “L’an 5” (Year Five of the French Republic), which was 1796-97. During the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted ten days, the communards brought this system back. No one should be surprised that it didn’t take this time either.
I’m not sure whether the Haitians got the idea from the French, against whom the Haitians revolted and won their own independence in a war dozens of times bloodier than the War of American Independence, but they did win it. They began a new dating system, though they did not use it exclusively. 1804 C.E. became “L’an 1” of Haitian independence. While Haiti has also long made reference to the C.E. calendar, government paperwork still makes reference to the year of independence (I think we are now in Year 213).
Many countries in the Islamic world use the Islamic calendar, called by them the Hijri, and by the West “anno Hegirae.” As a general rule, the more religious the country, the more exclusively it uses the AH calendar, which begins in C.E. 622 when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina. Ramadan (yes, the fasting month), for example, is the ninth month of this calendar. Interesting datum: for two non-consecutive months of this calendar, fighting in any form is not allowed. AH is a lunar calendar and we currently are in AH 1438.
Iran and Afghanistan use the SH (solar Hijri) or Jalali calendar, which has the same start point as AH but is solar rather than lunar. In 1976, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran made one of the many secularist decisions that generated the discontent that would depose him: he decided to move the calendar’s starting point back to the start of the reign of Cyrus. What had been SH 1355 was now SH 2535. Take a guess how quickly the mullahs reversed this change once the Shah was out. Today, we are in SH 1395.
Starting in 1840 CE, the Ottomans used a solar calendar that included elements of the SH calendar and the Julian, which they called the Rumi (Roman) calendar. If the Ottomans were around today, they would be very offended that today their name means a footstool in English. It’s very offensive in Turkey to show someone the soles of your feet. So don’t do it to the Jandarma, Turkey’s national military police, unless you’re in the market for a pretty bad day.
While Japan uses the Gregorian calendar, it denotes the year based upon the Imperial reign. Each emperor’s era has a name; emperors used to change the era name now and then, but since the Meiji era, Japanese emperors have stuck with the same name throughout. Nowadays they tend to live a very long time, long enough that there have been only four eras since 1867: Meiji, Taisho, Showa (Hirohito) and Heisei (Akihito). Today begins Heisei Year 29 (though as you know, it began yesterday in Japan relative to us).
Several Southeast Asian countries, notably Thailand, use the Buddhist Era (BE) dating. Monthly systems vary, but Thailand uses the Gregorian calendar with BE annual dating. The Buddhist Era begins when the Buddha achieved parinirvana (nirvana after death; in other words, died). The Thais date this from 543 B.C.E. as we would reckon it, making this 2560 BE.
In India, they use the Saka Era calendar for official purposes. Saka Year 0 was C.E. 78, making this Saka 1938. However, many ignore this, and use Vikram Samvat dating, as is done in Nepal. Right now it is still 2073 VS, as this calendar begins 56.7 years before the Gregorian C.E. calendar. I question the prevalency of either in government reference, considering that a trip to the Indian government website tells me today is January 1, 2017, and I didn’t click a button for English. Unsurprising, considering that there are more English speakers in India than there are in the United States.
Just about all the people living on the North American Pacific coast, and a lot of people inland of us, know that the Chinese New Year tends to happen in January C.E. or shortly after. They are told to say things like “gong hay fat choy.” Well, if I were you (and I base this on two years working for a Chinese-owned company where about a third of the employees spoke Mandarin or Cantonese in addition to English), I wouldn’t try to say anything in Cantonese or Mandarin or any other dialect of Chinese until I had memorized its pronunciation with the approval of a native speaker. This is because meaning is inflected in tones, thus the same word can mean multiple things depending on how you articulate it. I was taught to say, rough transliteration, “goon ji fa dthai,” but without the correct tonals, it would be wrong.
Of course, Chinese speakers living in the Western world understand the intent of even a butchered New Year’s wish, and in a spirit of goodwill and gratitude, are likely to restrain their hilarity until you are gone. The official Chinese (People’s Republic) calendar dates from Year 1 of Han Emperor Ping, which very conveniently corresponds to 1 C.E. If you have a favorite Chinese restaurant, go to an Asian grocery store and get some red ‘lucky money’ sleeves. Break up some $20 bills into tens, and stuff a few tens into these sleeves. Go to your favorite restaurant, and with both hands and a “Happy New Year” (in English, unless you know the tonals) give an envelope to each person you deal with. Odds are the manager will make up an envelope giving you back the same rough amount of money, which you must accept just as the employees accepted your gift. That way, everyone gets their ‘lucky money.’ If you are Caucasian (thus not expected to know about this), they will never forget you thereafter, as you will probably be the only Caucasian who ever did it.
I hope you all have a wonderful year of love and light. If this isn’t the start of your own new year, you are wished love and light anyway until that time comes.